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Bill seeks to keep politics out of classes

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Carla Nelson
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Public school teachers would be required to use more caution in expressing their political views in the classroom under a bill sponsored by Rochester GOP state Sen. Carla Nelson.

But critics say the legislation is unworkable and likely to have a chilling effect in schools if passed.

Nelson said her bill, called the "Academic Balance" bill, would help ensure that all views and ideas receive respectful treatment in the state’s public schools. In these "highly charged political times," she added, it is important that schools focus on education, and anything that strays from scientific fact be presented in a balanced way.

Nelson said she doesn’t think it happens in every school district, but "clearly it appears that there seems to be some politicizing or advocacy in schools."

"I want to be very clear that neither teachers nor students check their free speech rights at the door when they enter a school building," Nelson said. "However, teachers cannot be advocating for particular political positions or religious positions using school taxpayer dollars in front of a captive audience of students."

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The bill would require school boards to set policies for how and when teachers could share their social and political views, or when they could require students to express their views. School boards would also create "reporting procedures and appropriate disciplinary action for policy violations."

"Public education courses are not for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination," the bill states.

Education leaders fear that the proposal’s language could have a stifling effect on the ability of teachers to educate.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, dubs the bill the "Uncritical Thinking Protection" act, because it would prevent teachers from using techniques that promote critical thinking.

One part of the bill prohibits school employees from "requiring students or other employees to express specified social or political viewpoints for the purposes of academic credit."

Specht pointed out that students in debate class are often required to understand both sides of an issue and argue a side that clashes with their political values. It’s a technique that is also used in English and the other advanced placement classes.

"Looking at things from another lens. This is used quite often. It’s a skill that we try to teach," Specht said.

Specht said that the bill, if it passes, might give teachers pause before they engage students in classroom discussions on controversial topics or current events. She noted that after 9/11, students came to school wanting to talk about what had happened. But teachers might hesitate under such a law, uncertain if they are falling afoul of district policies.

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"I mean, current events happen all the time. Students are not islands. Students are aware of what’s going on around them. We have to be able to talk about these things in a balanced way," Specht said.

She also questioned how workable such a plan would be. How would an administrator determine if a teacher violated the policy and how would it be enforced, she said.

Nelson said the bill will likely undergo language changes as it moves through the committee process. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

Nelson said students expressing points of view in a debate format is very different from the political advocacy and activities that her bill seeks to prohibit, such as requiring student to "stand up in class and move to one side of the room or another depending on their personal point of view."

The bill has already produced some heated exchanges between Nelson and the state’s teachers union. On Monday, Nelson fired off a tweet in response to what she called the union’s "misguided" reaction to the bill.

"As a former educator, I know the liberal politics that flow from the teachers’ unions, through the schools, and towards our students. Our kids are smart enough to make up their own minds when presented with the facts instead of progressive talking points," Nelson said.

Nelson is also seeking the GOP’s nomination for Congress. Asked if the bill enhances her candidacy with conservative voters who view the public schools as bastions of liberal orthodoxy, she said her bill also protects "liberal students from conservatives who are trying to push their views.

Conservatives are speaking up on behalf of the bill. The bill’s introduction comes around the same time that the Edina School Board reached a settlement with the Edina High School Young Conservatives Club, according to MinnPost.

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The agreement was reached after a handful of students from the Edina club filed a free-speech lawsuit against the district and its high school principal. It accused school officials of terminating their club and having a double standard when it came to protecting students’ First Amendment rights.

Katherine Kersten, senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, told a committee earlier this month that the Edina situation highlighted the need for Nelson’s bill.

She said students at Edina are under intense pressure to adopt and express a "very specific set of social and political views." The district’s plan, she said, mandates that all teaching and learning experiences must be viewed through a "lens of racial equity." That lens divides people into two camps: White people who are the oppressors and everybody else, who are the oppressed.

"It stands for a notion that race and skin color are not only the most important but indeed the defining thing about a person," Kersten said. "This is a deeply troubling idea."

Nelson said that even before she heard about the Edina controversy, she was hearing from a Rochester parent and a student who described how students were required to publicly express their points of view in class in a way that could be shaming to students.

"You can imagine in high school that could be considered bullying, if you have everybody move to the right if they believe that or move to the left if they believe this," she said.

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Denise Sprecht

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